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Engaging with Cuba Beyond the Walls of the Classroom

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As is such with many study abroad experiences, many of the highlights of my semester in Cuba were captured outside the classroom.  While enrolling in interesting and major-related courses at the University of Havana was a major goal of mine, participating in extra-curricular activities made my four month stay in Cuba much more profound and meaningful. Much of my time in Cuba was unstructured, so I had the opportunity to create a life for myself that was very different from my routine at Oberlin College.  The three activities I participated in on a regular basis that made my time in Cuba so unique and memorable were playing in a flag-football league (yes, American football!), enrolling in a ceramics course, and taking salsa dance lessons!

My roommate, Santiago, and I stumbled on a group of Cubans tossing a football around after school one Friday early in our program at the stadium next to the University of Havana.  They were excited to talk with two American guys about this sport that has very little Cuban participation.  We not only played a pick-up game of football with them that day, but also joined their team for weekly competitions on Sundays.  As the knowledge of football techniques and strategy hadn’t been widely introduced in Cuba, Santiago and I showed the guys what we had learned playing high school and college ball while they taught us their own style of play. Both Santiago and I were ecstatic every time we got to lace up our cleats and play our favorite sport in this semi-organized league.  Each week brought new adventures as the field we usually played games at was in the Ciudad Deportiva, Sports City, across town.

We took the bus to Ciudad Deportivaalmost every Sunday, which is a much more complicated task in Havana than New York City, for example, that has an organized transportation system.  In Havana, there is no map or fixed schedule for the busses.  In order to find our way to Ciudad Deportiva, Santiago and I asked our host mother, Esmeralda, how to get there, and she directed us to a bus stop and a couple of options for busses we could take.  The bus stop that she described was merely a group of Cubans sitting on a short cement wall waiting for their bus to stop at an intersection of two main streets: Avenida de los Presidentes   (Presidents Avenue) and Calle 25 (25thstreet). We waited for about half an hour for our bus to come and we hopped on, paying a single peso cubano (equivalent of 4 cents USD) that would cover both of our fares.  While we did not know where our stop was to get off at the Ciudad Deportiva, we simply asked an elderly gentleman standing next to us on the bus and he told exactly where we needed to go.

This method of talking to people at the bus stop and on the bus itself paid dividends for me and two other friends as we enrolled in a ceramics course at a university on the other side of town.  Along with two of my friends on the IFSA-Butler program, Josie and Jake, I wanted to take an arts course; however, the University of Havana only offers art history and theory classes.  My friends and I asked our resident directors if there was any opportunity to take a fine arts course, and Sol, the assistant resident director took the three of us to the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), Superior Institute of Art.  Sol helped us talk with administrators and then the head professor of ceramics at ISA; however, after those first few conversations, Josie, Jake and I were on our own to sort out the enrollment process and transportation to and from the school.

It was about an hour commute each way to get to ISA and it took us over a month to finalize the enrollment process, but it was well worth it.  The campus itself at ISA is worth visiting Cuba. As soon as we stepped foot on the campus, we heard the sound of students practicing their brass instruments scattered throughout the rolling hills that once hosted Havana’s most famous golf course. It was our weekly trips to ISA that brought me peace and relaxation through making ceramic sculptures, discussing music and politics with Professor Alberto and exploring the vast landscape and abandoned brick buildings on the southern part of campus.  If I were to visit Cuba for one day, I would spend the entirety of it at ISA.

The ceramics course at ISA was not the only form of art that I was able to explore during my time studying abroad in Cuba.  Michelle, our program director, organized a weekly salsa dance class that I hesitantly signed up for.  With no prior dance experience, I was nervous to expose my weaknesses in front of my peers.  However, after only a few weeks of stumbling through learning the first steps of the Cuban style of salsa, I began to embrace the challenge and become a leader in the class.  I was soon chosen as an example of how to do the dance steps for males and I gained the confidence to not only dance in front of my peers, but also at salsa dance clubs that expert dancers attended.  While I am far from being able to impress Celia Cruz with my dance moves, I am able to carry my salsa skills to any opportunity to dance in the future.

I am extremely grateful for these three opportunities to explore life in Cuba and experience forms of expression and performance through the flag-football, ceramics and salsa classes.  They also provided structure throughout my week outside of the classes at the University of Havana and helped me develop skills that I didn’t know I had.  Maybe even more importantly, through playing football, taking ceramics and dancing salsa helped me engage with Cubans and build friendships in distinct areas and environments in Havana.  I would encourage anyone studying abroad to look into opportunities to pursue current and new potential interests while studying abroad.  I could not have been happier with my decision to go to Cuba and to participate in every adventure that I could.

Dylan Mehri is a student at Oberlin College and studied abroad with IFSA at Universidad de la Habana in Havana, Cuba in spring 2017.